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Sparks Fly Following Contract Clash

Part 1: Unions discuss frustrations surrounding new deal with Hawaiian Electric, while an ardent leader returns to generate a brighter future. “We’re a very strong union state—we just need to get our strength back.”

May 5, 2011
Trisha Smith

Ahakuelo is one of the candidates seeking the position of business manager/financial secretary (BM/FS) next month for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1260, a group that jolted headlines this year during its contentious contract negotiations and weeklong strike in Hawai‘i. IBEW 1260 oversees industry unions that represent nearly 2,700 electrical workers across the state and Guam, including over 1,200 employees from companies such as HECO, Maui Electric (MECO) and Hawai‘i Electric Light.

Born and raised on O‘ahu, Ahakuelo has been a part of the IBEW 1260 family throughout much of his life, from working as a HECO shop steward to experiencing his father’s union leadership as its BM/FS from 1980 to 1997. Leading up to his retirement last year back home on O’ahu, the native son worked at the top in the union’s international office in Washington, D.C., as the first person from Hawai‘i to hold a director position there for IBEW.

“I could not have imagined 30 years ago as a young HECO employee and 1260 member that my journey would have led me to serve the Brotherhood as director of organizing for the IBEW, responsible for the entire brotherhood in the U.S. and Canada,” said Ahakuelo. “We’re [Hawai‘i] a very a strong union state, and we just need to get our strength back.”

Article Photos

Members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1260 statewide—including over 200 union workers at Maui Electric Company (MECO)—walked off the job Friday, March 4, after negotiations broke down. (Above) Nicholas Lennex of G4S Secure Solutions manned barricades at MECO, directing customers to alternate locations in order to pay their monthly bills. O‘ahu felt the shock more than Maui, as thousands of residents were left without power after a huge storm that same day.

Photo: Debra Lordan

Since last summer, IBEW 1260 BM/FS Lance Miyake worked locally on a tentative agreement with the utility’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI), and after several months of negotiating a contract (the former expired on Oct. 31, 2010), both sides agreed to extend the deadline through January 2011. Yet, after no agreement was made, the workers voted in February to reject a tentative agreement and followed steps to authorize a strike.

Since retiring, Ahakuelo’s hands were tied after he received his pension at the end of 2010, so he was unable to join his “brothers” during these struggles. “I had to sit back and watch during the strike,” he said. “Very frustrating… ”

A source said that last summer the two entities engaged in cordial relations before entering into serious talks and exchanging documents, even as rumors churned out behind closed doors that MECO, for example, may do an “entire staff wash.”

Another longtime employee said tension increased between union workers and managers as “fresh faces” were brought in with “sign-up bonuses,” but never received proper training. Managers held communication classes, including “Accept Change” programs to help employees deal with the economy and company adjustments, according to one attendee. He added that specialists were also flown in to deliver encouraging “manager potential pitches,” with phrases such as “You can all get to this position.”

“Trust issues were becoming worse within the workforce with meetings like these,” he said.

Members of IBEW 1260 statewide—including over 200 union workers at MECO—walked off the job Friday, March 4, after negotiations broke down. O‘ahu felt the shock more than Maui, as thousands of residents were left without power after a huge storm that same day.

The two sides were required to meet again the following Sunday—a direct order from an agitated Gov. Neil Abercrombie—with a federal mediator on O‘ahu. After this “marathon negotiation meeting,” the parties arrived at a tentative agreement on Monday. Ratification meetings took place across the isles that week, and workers voted to ratify the new contract, which will be in effect through Oct. 31, 2013.

Several union employees relayed frustrations of “a public vibe against them,” and the governor’s strong quotes were disconcerting. “If we didn’t strike, our earnings would be delayed, and if we strike, we’re the bad guys,” said one member. “All we wanted to do was break even—not lose what we had.”

“We have a contract that recognizes the skills and value of our union workforce while balancing the interests of our customers,” said Darren Pai, spokesman for HECO.

Miyake said he was exhausted, and “tired of waiting while company managers ran back and forth,” adding that it was unfortunate HECO President/CEO Richard Rosenblum was the final decision-maker when he had only attended a few meetings over several months.

“If we’re going to compete at the bargaining table, we need to up our game—compete at their level,” said Ahakuelo, adding how Rosenblum brought in “big dogs” from Southern California Edison.

Ahakuelo has already compiled a strategy team, which will include a full-time staff attorney to engage in the process, and a communications specialist (local celebrity sportscaster and journalist Russell H. Yamanoha) to avoid future media issues.

“The governor got involved… what can we do?” said Miyake, who has been with the union for over 30 years and will run for re-election next month against Ahakuelo. “It’s sad that it had to take all this drama.”

He said he can’t say the electric company was trying to “bust the union” during negotiations this year, but “they weren’t working hard to come together on a compromise either.” “We even asked them to consider a one-year contract before—that didn’t include any raise—but they shot us down,” said Miyake.

According to a clerical professional, nearly 88 percent of the IBEW 1260 members voted on the labor deal in March, with 605 voting in its favor, and 507 against it.



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